The Canon

Biblical and patristic studies about the Canon

In this section you will find articles related to Biblical Canon, its development, and the most common Protestant objections to reject the deuterocanonical books (called by them "apocryphal")

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Talking with my evangelical friends about the Biblical Canon (Part 1)

By José Miguel Arráiz. Traslation: Felipe Sánchez Espinoza

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese.


We reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: In our conversation you mentioned a text from the Books of the Maccabees to justify the appropriateness of prayer for the dead. I researched a little and I know why I didn’t find it in our bibles. It happens that is an apocryphal book that does not belongs to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament.

Joseph: First of all, a clarification: We don’t call it “apocryphal books”, because others writings that are out of biblical canon given that name. We call “Deuterocanonical”[1], being books whose canonicity was questioned on several occasions, and are different from the rest of the holy books that we call “Protocanonical”[2].  But leave aside the terminology to focus on what’s important.

Michael: Alright. Call them “Deuterocanonical” this time to use a common terminology.

Joseph: Thanks.

Now, it happens that even among the Jews had double canon:  which is usually called the Palestinian canon, which followed the Jews from Palestine and which only it had the protocanonical book[3], and the Alexandrine canon, which followed those Jews who had been deported and living abroad. They used a Bible translation that was made by order to the emperor Ptolemy for Alexandria’s library, known as the Septuagint[4]. This translation of the Bible, called this way because it was made for approximately 70 Jewish scholars, had all the deuterocanonical books. Jesus and his disciples had used this version’s Bible.

Michael:  How you know it?

Joseph:  Because 350 quotations of the Old Testament appear in the New, 300 quotations agree with the Septuagint’s text[5]. In fact, it was the text used not only for the Jewish community of the ancient world beyond of Judah, but also by the early Christian Church, of speaking and Greek culture[6].

Michael: Ok, but just because Jews and Christians have used this version, it does not mean necessarily that they accept the canonicity of those books. Look at my example, the Jews currently do not accept, even in antiquity, two important testimonies of Judaism: Josephus[7], the greatest Jewish historian, testifies that the books you call deuterocanonical were not in the Jewish canon, and Philo, the great Jewish philosopher of Alexandria and Alexandrian Jewish community of Greek speaking, they used to use the version of seventy, and He never mentioned the deuterocanonicals.

Joseph: Nobody denies that the Jews finally rejected the deuterocanonical books, and we come to analyze the causes of that. With respect to Josephusm we should not lose sight of the fact that he wrote in a historical moment where this rejection began to be marked and it became definitive at the end of the first century, start of the second. Well now, Philo of Alexandria, it’s true that he never mentioned the deuterocanonical books, it’s also true that he never mentioned some protocanonical books that are in the protestant Bibles. Nor in the works of Philo that have survived are found quotes of Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel[8]. That he omitted to mention some book not prove to reject their canonicity, simply he not considered relevant comment on something in their texts.

Michael:  But it’s a fact that the Jews finally rejected it, Does it not imply that should be out of the canon? After all, the apostle Paul recognizes about the Jews: “The words of God were committed to them” (Rom 3, 2). In reference to the Old Testament, they had the authority to decide.

Joseph: I don’t think that we should overstate this text to say something that he did not say. The Jews, as the people chosen by God, were initially entrusted the Revelation, but then were entrusted to the Church, who ultimately could discern authoritatively and definitive about the canon.

Michael: I understand that the Christian Church received the authority from God after the Jews did not believe in the Messiah, but in reference to the Old Testament, they had the authority to decide because it was written before Church time.

Joseph: The problem is that you are dividing the books of the scriptures based on a human division and organizational. The Old Testament and New Testament are titles we give to group those books that were written before and after the coming of Christ, but each and every one are part of the same progressive revelation “that it have been transmitted to the saints at once and forever” (Jude 1,3), and for the definitive discernment about the books that would form part of the canon belonged to the Church for being the bearer of the keys of heaven’s kingdom (Matt 16,19). Or which part of the Bible mentions this subdivision and when the canon would be defined?[9]

We cannot put the word of Judaism on Christianity in this, because they ended up rejecting the Messiah. And the reasons are well known as to why they rejected those books, because the Christian apologists used it to show them that Jesus was the messiah.

Michael: What apologists?

Joseph: Is the testimony of Justin Martyr, the most famous apologist of second century; at a debate which is conserved with a Jew of the time, where he berates his opponent, Trypho, that the Jews had rejected the version of seventy by this cause[10]. The reason is very obvious because there are texts that talk clearly about the Messiah in deuterocanonical books that drove many Jews to be Christians.

Michael:  Do you remember some of these texts?

Joseph: Look at the next text of Wisdom:

Let us, therefore, lie in wait for the just, because he is not for our turn, and he is contrary to our doings, and upbraideth us with transgressions of the law, and divulgeth against us the sins of our way of life. He boasteth that he hath the knowledge of God, and CALLETH HIMSELF THE SON OF GOD. He is become a censurer of our thoughts. He is grievous unto us, even to behold: for his life is not like other men's, and his ways are very different. We are esteemed by him as triflers, and he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness, and he preferreth the latter end of the just, AND GLORIETH THAT HE HATH GOD FOR HIS FATHER. Let us see then if his words be true, and let us prove what shall happen to him, and we shall know what his end shall be. For IF HE BE THE TRUE SON OF GOD, HE WILL DEFEND HIM, and will deliver him from the hands of his enemies. Let us examine him by outrages and tortures, that we may know his meekness, and try his patience.  LET US CONDEMN HIM TO A MOST SHAMEFUL DEATH: FOR THERE SHALL BE RESPECT HAD UNTO HIM BY HIS WORDS.” (Wis 2,12-20)

The similarity to what would happen to Jesus the “just” by excellence is so amazing that it can hardly be a coincidence. Look that there is talk about a Just who is called to himself “Son of God”, that it was precisely one of the reasons why the Jews wanted kill him: “Hereupon therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he did not only break the Sabbath but also said God was his Father, making himself equal to God.” (John 5,18). Also they plan to submit him to outrage and anignominious death and mock him precisely as they mocked Jesus in the cross: “Hereupon therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he did not only break the Sabbath but also said God was his Father, making himself equal to God.” (Matt 27,43; Mark 15,32)

Michael:  Definitely the text gives us a lot to think about.

Joseph: And unfortunately it is not in your Bible.

Michael: All right, we can agree in that criteria of the Jews can’t be put it over the Christian Church, but I have also found that many fathers of the Church also rejected the books that you call deuterocanonical and when I say a lot, there were MANY.

Joseph: As I said to you at the beginning, the deuterocanonical books have been submitted in different occasions to doubt their inspiration and canonicity, which also happened to a lesser extent with protocanonical books. To take an example: the older catalogue of canon of New Testament that has survived is the Muratorian Fragment, dated late in the second century. The epistle to the Hebrews, James and the 2 of Peter are not mentioned, but today, Catholics and Evangelicals accept them as part of Bible. This shows that even in a time so late, the canon had not fully defined[11].

If somebody studies the canon’s history, they will see that the agreement was producing it gradually, but this was not defined in base to particular opinions, if not with authoritative decisions at Church. This is the case with two illustrious Fathers of Church: saint Jerome and saint Augustine. The first one started to reject deuterocanonical books and the second defended them. The rejection of the first one yielded to the request of the Pope to include them in the Bible that has been used since that time in the Catholic Church: The Latin vulgate.

The first authoritative decisions of canon were found in two documents. One of these is called “Decrees of Gelasius”, which today is essential. Part it is attributed to a council convened by Pope Damasus in 382. The other is the canon of Pope Innocent I, who sent him in 405 to a bishop Gallic as an answer to request information. Both documents contain all the deuterocanonical books without distinction, and are identical to the catalogue of the Trent council.    

Therefore, based on more than particular opinions, which were perfectly respectable and understandable when the theme had not been defined, in the Church we have welcomed authoritative decisions. And is not causality that in absolutely all the councils that have realized in the Church to define the canon (locals or ecumenical) and all of them have always included the deuterocanonical books, as happened in the council of Hippo (393 A.C.) and the three of Carthage (393, 397, and 419 A.C.) until it was defined formally and in definitive way in the council of Trent (1546 A.C.)

And we cannot reject the books that were in the Bible that the Church had during sixteen centuries[12]  just because in the XVI century, it occurred to Martin Luther to reject them. In his case, like the Jews, it bothered him what was said in these books, because it contradicted his doctrine “justification by faith” (Sola Fide), the prayer for the dead people, the purgatory, etc.

In fact, although many people did not know, Luther tried unsuccessfully to exclude the canon of the New Testament in another four books: Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation[13].

Michael: I didn’t know it, but I do not see any reason why he wanted to do it.

Joseph: I would say because in Hebrews, it mentions the possibility to lose the salvation (Heb 23, 5-9), in James, it says that the man is justified by his works and not only by faith (Jas 2, 24), in Jude, it says that those who cause divisions in the Church are impious that lack of Holy Spirit (Jude 1,18-19), and in Revelation, because it says that all will be judged according to his works (Rev 20,13); all teachings are incompatible with his doctrine.

Michael: The conversation is very interesting, but there are still some points pending that I would like to talk about  next time.  

Joseph: With pleasure.


[1] The “Deuterocanonical” books were excluded from protestant Bibles and they are: Tobít, Judith, Esther, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, (also called “Sirach”) y Baruch.

[2] Although discussed if Palestine Jews had excluded definitely the deuterocanonical.

[3] The Diaspora is a term used to refer to the Jewish population expelled from their land and dispersed to root of different wars. The first exile occurred in 586 B.C., when the King of the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar II, conquered the kingdom of Judah, destroying the first temple and moving the Jewish leaders to Babylon. Seventy years later, the Persian King Ciro II the great allowed Jews to return to Israel land after having conquered the Babylonians, however they did not all return. The second exile occurred in 70 A.C. when the roman General Tito, future emperor, defeated a Jewish revolt and destroyed the second temple.

A major number of Jews were expelled after the rebellion’s Bar Kokhba was crushed in 135 A.C. Since then, the Jews dispersed for all the Roman Empire and later for the entire world, it is in almost every country.

[4] The Septuagint translation or version of seventy starts in the end of third century (280 B.C.) and culminated in the late second century.

[5] Cf. R. Cornely, Introductio generalis: CSS (París 1894) n.31;
H. H. Swete-R. R. Ottley, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge 1914) 381-405.

[6] Norman Davidson; Early Christian Doctrines, Continuum; Londres, Inglaterra, 1958, p. 53

[7] Flavius Josephus was an important Jewish historian born about in 37 A.C. and died in 101 A.C. He was captured and moved to Rome; He became the favorite of the imperial family. In Rome he wrote in Greek his most famous works: The Jewish war, Jewish antiquities and Against Apion as a result it now has important historical information of the time. He was considered as a traitor to the Jewish cause.

[8] Herbert Edward Ryle, D.D., Philo and the Holy Scripture, Londres: Macmillan and Co. 1895

[9] In point of fact, Jesus and the apostles normally refer to the Old Testament as “The law and Prophets”, but they never indicated which books are canonical or that had been definitely defined in some moment before the coming of Jesus.

[10] In his dialogue with Trypho (number 71) wrote: “But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying; but since I am aware that this is denied by all of your nation, I do not address myself to these points, but I proceed to carry on my discussions by means of those passages which are still admitted by you.” (Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol I, the Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus). Also wrote in the number 120: “I will not argue with you about a little phrase, I have not had effort to found my demonstration of Jesus Christ over the scriptures unrecognized you, as the texts that I mentioned, Jeremiah the prophet, Ezra and David, if not on which until now you recognize” (Ibid.)

[11] Despite that all books of the Bible were written before to finalize the first century, the discernment and definition of canon was much later.

[12] The Bibles that used the Christian Church during the firsts sixteen centuries were the Septuagint and the Latin vulgate. 

[13] For Martin Luther, the New Testament consisted principally by saint John the evangelist and by the letters of saint Paul and saint Peter; instead, the three synoptic gospels don’t deserve much appreciation. In the prologue of one of his editions of the New Testament, he wrote: “We must distinguish between books and books. The best are the gospel of Saint John and the epistles of Saint Paul, especially to the Romans, the Galatians and Ephesians, and the first epistle of Saint Peter, these are the books that manifest Christ to you and teach all you need it for salvation; although you do not know any other book. The epistle of James, in front of these books, it’s nothing more than straw, because not present any evangelical character”. (Prologue of the New Testament in 1546, Bibel VI, 10). On the other hand, he rejects the letter of Hebrews for not belonging to saint Paul; and of the letter of saint Jude that tells is an extract of saint Peter and for that is not necessary. About the Revelation, will express his reject, because he dislikes that Christ acts him as a severe judge: “I do not find anything in this book that is apostolic or prophetic” (Bibel VII, 404). As soon as to the books of Old Testament used him it the same process to accept them or reject them, according to whether or not they coincide with his own theological interpretations.